What is the most important word in this “acting game”?
‘Why’. And the answer to that is emotional.
Sanford Meisner, director and acting guru, said this to his class of actors back in the 70’s.
Sure, you say, but I’m a writer, I’m not interested in ‘this acting thing’? Yeah but, I say, you totally should be. Especially if you are writing for performance of some sort.
Acting and directing and playwriting and design are interwoven skills. The discipline of each is specific and requires years of training/experience, but the craft of each spring from the same place—the art of telling a story. As much as a lighting designer is interested in telling an emotional story through light, a sonic artist is telling an emotional story through sonics.
As a writer, you can learn a great deal from what is taught to actors or directors or designers. And this is why I always encourage writers to enrol in acting classes or to read books about the great directors, or volunteer their time to assist in stage or film design projects. Canny little truths exist in the overlaps between the theatre disciplines, important ones.
In life, real life, why do we say anything? Why do we do anything? Say, you eat an apple. Why? Everyday logic says we eat an apple because we’re hungry. But the world of the performance is not everyday logic. It is a different kind of logic; it must be rarified, concentrated, intense and heightened.
A character walks onto the stage and eats an apple. We can assume that it is not just for fun because we didn’t just pay $50+ to sit and watch someone eat an apple just coz they can. The action has an emotional trail. Something else is going on. The audience is looking for the trail immediately. It’s instinct. We want to create an emotional narrative.
Say you write this in the stage directions for a character you’ve named Henry:
HENRY ENTERS EATING AN APPLE.
The good actor reads that and begins to look for the reason. What is he doing? Eating an apple. Sure. But really what is he doing? why is he eating an apple? And the answer will be emotional.
There are a 1000+ ways to eat an apple— gingerly, voraciously, mindlessly, greedily, nervously, smugly, reluctantly, hurriedly, distastefully, angrily, sheepishly, secretively, fearfully…..(and on and on)
And each way you can name to eat that apple denotes a mental mind-set or an emotional state of being. Which leads to the question of why? Why is the character eating the apple in that way? What is going on in this story for that emotional state to be present in the character’s actions? The apple itself is the least likely to hold any clues to answer that question- unless it is a whole story be about apples, which seems unlikely.
The apple is just a tool. It is only a medium through which the actor is expressing something emotional. And if you as the writer include the action of eating the apple because the apple is just an apple, and so what, and it doesn’t matter how the character eats it, I’m afraid that apple shouldn’t be there in the script and it shouldn’t be used by the actor.
Everything on stage has a connectivity to the emotional world. Every action, every movement, every word, every prop is creating an emotional narrative. If it doesn’t, it’s suspect. It’s dead weight. It needs to be trimmed.
So Sanford Meisner felt strongly that questioning the why of any given line or note of stage direction within a script is important. As a writer, you should be constantly thinking about the emotional why of any given line in your work.
I’m not saying you, the writer, need to tell the actor about how to eat the apple. I just read Who is Sylvia?/The Goat by Edward Albee, and I was shocked and kinda annoyed at how often the author indicated the emotional value of the actor’s lines.
Eg MARTIN: (ruefully) I suppose so.
The play is littered with instructions on how the actors should deliver their lines. Just don’t do that. Actors need to be able to work and discover the emotions of a line for themselves. That’s their job!
What I am saying is that you must always be thinking about the emotional logic of your characters and their actions should be more about emotion than their words.
One of the greatest examples I ever read of this was from a first time writer in her 80’s, would you believe. She wrote a scene in which a young mother and disillusioned wife of the late 19th century was angry that her husband was home late from the pub. The writer could have chosen any domestic task to have her character be doing while she waited to give her husband a piece of her mind—sitting a cooking pot, knitting, sweeping, feeding her baby. Nope. Instinctively this new writer went for ironing. The character was using those flat-irons that need to be heated by the fire and needed to be applied to the clothes with considerable pressure in order to work. The entire action of the scene was her doing the ironing. The writer specified the thumping that the character made with each stroke of the iron. The action was ironing, but the emotional narrative was held within the action. She wasn’t really doing the ironing at all; she was attacking her absent husband.
The most important word in this playwriting game is why? And the answer to that is emotional.
If you don’t know who Meisner was, then you are in for a ride. It’s a method of teaching or learning acting that aims for spontaneous or impulsive acting. Go check him out.